Does Realism in Fiction Matter?

posted in: Various Musings | 8

First off, before we go any further, let me stress that I know (having taught many creative writing classes) that “truth” or “reality” doesn’t always make for compelling fiction. I know without a doubt that sometimes what really happened makes for a boring—or unbelievable—story.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can continue. 😉 Here’s what I want to stress, though: if a story doesn’t feel real, it loses a lot of its allure (for me anyway). If it feels unrealistic or farfetched, you’re going to lose me as a reader. That’s why I try really hard as a writer to keep elements of my stories as realistic as possible (although, with the beginning of Seal All Exits, I probably failed).

But getting things right as an author (most of the time anyway) means so much to me that I conduct painstaking research. Sometimes I use the internet; other times I rely on observation. There have even been times when I’ve polled groups of people or questioned individuals to find out things I have no way of knowing (even if I suspect something and just want to confirm). I’d hate for a reader to be halfway through a book and then think, “Oh, well, that would never happen because ________.” If I’ve lost you, you won’t finish the story. That’s happened to me more times than I can remember, and it aggravates me more than it probably should. For example, right now I’m reading a book that’s set in the 1990s but the characters all feel and act like they come from the 50s. The characters are in college in their early twenties, and they drink and smoke like the characters in Mad Men and use things like handkerchiefs and fountain pens. Occasionally, there’s an F word thrown in or a reference to cocaine, but more often than not, it feels like the author found a loved one’s manuscript (grandparent or parent) and just added her own scenes here and there so she could sell it to the publisher. I went to college in the 80s and not once did I see a young man use a handkerchief! There’s also no mention of computers or CDs or…well, you get the point. The story might feel real if it was set in the era in which it obviously belongs (the 50s or even the early 60s). Knowing it’s set in the 90s makes me roll my eyes every time I read another few scenes and it’s this lack of realism which makes it hard for me to trudge through this book. I promised a friend I’d read it or I would have put it down a long time ago, because the author (and I also blame the editors and publishers for letting that sh*t slide) didn’t invest in making the story feel real.

That’s one of the things that reviewers have mentioned about Bullet over and over and over again—it felt real to them. That was what I wanted to do, to make a story so believable it was compelling and hard to put down and, in the process, caused readers to invest emotionally—because that sort of investment makes for a rewarding read.

What’s the most realistic book you’ve ever read?


8 Responses

  1. Kathy Aronoff

    Hands down Lara Ward Cosio’s Rogue Series – It is also a Rock Romance but it’s reminiscent of a band biography with all their dirty little secrets revealed – Just FYI I can remember Apple Computers being around in the 90’s in schools in NY – They were the size of mini – fridges and some guys distastefully known as grease-balls in Brooklyn NY(derogatory slang for a very Italian asshole) used handkerchiefs probably because they lived with their mommies still and thought they were in the 50’s – but if that is not relevant to the story then I can see where you are coming from

    • Jade

      Hey, Kathy!

      I’ll have to check out that series!

      Just one question…did they use those handkerchiefs to blow their noses in? Eeewwwwww. LOL I actually have a few theories about that story and all its anachronisms, but I’m not settled yet. And that’s what I meant as far as computers and CDs–not one mention in a book that’s supposed to be set in the 90s. The first computer class I ever took was in 1983, and their appearance simply multiplied from there. There should have been at least a reference to one. But bottom line…this book just can’t seem to make up its mind what era it’s set in. 🙂

      <3 Jade

  2. Trisha @ WORD+STUFF

    I lose interest in stories where something unbelievable happens. Like, with the latest ALIEN movie, I lost interest in the first ten minutes of the movie. 😉

    I also think it’s important to get dialogue right – for me if it’s realistic, it’s more compelling and interesting.

    • Jade

      Well, you just made me glad I didn’t watch that movie! 😀

      I completely agree. Stilted, unbelievable dialogue can ruin a story, too.

  3. kara7964

    Usually the handkerchief was hanging out of a back pocket and yes they blew their noses ?Gross lol
    I probably would have put the book in the DNF pile

    • Jade

      Yes, gross! Back before facial tissue was a common thing, I get that. In the 90s, though, Kleenex and Puffs were easy to find and not that expensive. 😀

      I considered putting it in the DNF pile several times, except for the promise to my friend to read it, because I think she wants to talk about it. The woman who wrote the book isn’t a bad writer overall–it’s just that kind of thing (like the hankies) that’s making me scratch my head and wonder WTH the editors at the publishing house were thinking when they let that slide…

  4. kara7964

    I beta for about 6 Authors and really try to catch errors but It pisses me off when editors miss big things my latest beta request came from me deducting a star off a review for misspelling a “iconic band” name the authors daughter wrote me and said that the band name used in the book was a take on the main characters last name
    So I wrote her back and said yes I know but I was referring to The Beatles
    Because it was spelled Beetles in the book To say the author was horrified was an understatement she pm’d thanking me but I was the only one who noticed- must be my age lol
    So now she sends me final drafts
    But come on aren’t editors getting paid??

    • Jade

      I’m sure she is grateful for your help. I know that sometimes mistakes can slip, even with the best of editors, but yes! Editors are paid and here’s hoping they can catch something like misspelling a famous band.

      Side note: In my book On the Run (2015), I accidentally misspelled the first name of one of my favorite rock artists. All my folks (myself included) missed it. He is also referenced in the second book in the series and it was spelled correctly there, but I can’t tell you how many eyes passed over that original misspelling in the first book.

      A reviewer caught it after it was released–and noted that in the review! She didn’t say the name that was misspelled, only that one of her favorite musicians’ name was spelled wrong. Because I referenced a lot of artists and multiple bands in the book, I had to scour the book again to find it and, when I did, I was horrified. HORRIFIED!!! How had I missed that?! But I was also grateful that the reviewer had mentioned it, and you better believe I fixed it and republished ASAP. As a reader, she was disappointed that one of her favorite musicians’ name was misspelled. I can’t blame her. But it just goes to show that sometimes even the best proofreaders miss stuff. 🙂 That’s okay, though. That kind of thing keeps me humble!

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